I struggle to fully explain my hearing loss to my family. How I hear some things, but miss others. Why I can understand them in certain environments, but not other places. How my hearing aids don’t work like glasses? Why I am exhausted at the end of the day from the extra concentration required of me each day simply to communicate. I have been searching for a way to illustrate my hearing loss to my family and friends for years. Perhaps Wonderstruck is it.
Wonderstruck, a new film based on the book by the same name, follows the adventures of two deaf children — a girl, Rose, who has been deaf since birth, and a boy, Ben, who grew up hearing, but was recently deafened due to an accident. Ben has a clear leg up, because he can speak, helping him communicate with the hearing world in at least one direction.
The film depicts hearing problems in interesting ways, featuring silent segments for Rose, and muffled sound in the scenes with Ben. This trick allows the audience to experience the situations from their point of view.
I don’t consider myself deaf in the truest sense of the word since I have significant residual hearing that I augment with hearing aids, which help me hear in many situations. Yet the experiences of the deaf protagonists in the film still rang true for me.
— Strangers speaking to you, assuming you can hear them and becoming angry when you do not reply. I have gotten many dirty looks for my “rudeness” over the years, especially in crowded stores when someone mumbles, “Excuse me,” from behind but I don’t move.
— The near miss with a car or truck when walking on a crowded city street. This has happened to me many times, but most profoundly on my recent trip to China where my hearing aids melted from the heat and I was left in silence. Street crossing was treacherous.
— Being shushed by a friend for talking too loudly in a quiet place. Ben can’t seem to gauge the volume of his own voice. Neither can most people with hearing loss. I always appreciate if others tell me to adjust my voice to an appropriate level.
— When your family members or close friends forget you cannot hear well and talk to you without facing you for what feels like the millionth time. And after you remind them, they do it again a few minutes later. This is not only frustrating, but it hurts. If the people closest to you cannot remember to speak in a way that you can understand, what hope can you have for others? We see this pain on the screen as Ben continually reminds his new friend he cannot understand his spoken words.
— How people assume you know sign language because you have trouble hearing. Sign language must be learned, like any new language. It does not come as a package deal when you lose your hearing, although sometimes I wish it did.
After the movie, my husband seemed to better understand the isolation of poor hearing. Maybe it is easier to witness it from afar than up close each day. He found it frustrating when the sound of the movie was garbled, making it hard for him to understand what the characters were saying. Welcome to my daily struggle, I was thinking.
The funny thing is that I could often understand the dialogue even when the sound was muffled, because I read lips. “What did Rose’s mother say to her in her dressing room?” my husband wanted to know. “What did you do to your hair?” I told him. He had no idea. He might even have been a little impressed by my skills.
The Wonderstruck version we saw had open captions, where the dialogue appears on the screen in words, just like closed captions on your TV at home. This was a treat for those of us in the audience with hearing loss and useful for the hearing folks too. Many movie theaters offer captioned glasses or caption readers, but having the captions right on the screen was wonderful.
The parts with distorted audio were not captioned to keep the viewing experience as true to that of the hard of hearing characters as possible. One memorable scene showed Rose’s father screaming at her for a minor thing she did wrong. We see the father’s anger in his distorted facial features and witness Rose’s terror through her wide-eyed stare. She can’t understand his words, only his rage, and the experience is the same for us, unless we can read his lips.
Also left uncaptioned were the scenes involving sign language, again to demonstrate the communication challenges faced by the recently deafened character that did not sign.
I applaud the producers for screening the film with open captions in numerous instances to promote better accessibility for the hard of hearing community, but I wonder if they could have gone farther.
If increased accessibility is a goal of the film, why not screen the film with open captions every time? Not only could this film be a breakout way to demonstrate the experience of hearing impairment to hearing audiences, it could encourage theater owners to provide more such screenings of other movies in the future. This would be a meaningful change for our community that lingers well past this movie’s release.
Readers, will you see the film with your family?